Approaching Adversity with Joel Evey
Cover Image by Caroline Tompkins for Gap
Preview Image by Joel Evey
We had the absolute pleasure to join Joel Evey over a video call recently. Joel formerly worked at Gap, Need Supply, and Urban Outfitters, and is the founder of Pathh, a studio practice made up of a dispersed group of friends. Joel is a master of many trades, and we had the chance to discuss our unpopular opinions, what it means to be a community-builder, and working through seasons of adversity and change.
We caught Joel working from home—what he describes as "The Chill Zone". We were both winding down a hectic week, and Joel brought a calm energy that was definitely welcomed. After a few short formalities and jokes, we got straight into it. Buckle up for this one.
MW: So, what's been going on with you and your life?
JE: Right now, I’ve been going through these phases where I work in big corporate companies and expend a lot of energy. After those periods I take a bit of time to reflect and teach myself something new. So as far as what’s been keeping me busy, I still am doing client projects, but trying to not do as many. I’ve been traveling a lot. It’s a little less lucrative, to force myself to travel, but I’ve been taking it slow and thinking about what I want, what my priorities are. It’s been really life giving. Sometimes the “creative community” feels like it exists coastally. But there is a lot of precedence that says that stuff can exist anywhere. That's why it has been so nice to travel through America. I grew up in coastal California and moved to the East Coast as an adult, so seeing places like Colorado, like New Mexico—places that I don’t really have any experience with, has been really inspiring. It makes sense, as creatives to observe culture, and how things are moving. You need to know about it all, otherwise we exist in silos.
Images by Joel Evey for Need Supply
MW: Your road trips look so fun. Do you feel like doing that makes you better at your job? Taking those breaks and forcing yourself out of your silo?
JE: I think there are two answers to your question. And I think that yes, it definitely does make you better because you force yourself into the unexpected. It’s important for creatively-inclined people to force themselves into the unexpected. That’s when new ideas or new modes will bubble to the top, because you’ve been able to have an experience outside of your routine. To break your routine is to introduce this X-factor, which might be chaotic, but I think it is really important when you consider the fact that new X-factors are being introduced into our culture all the time. So training yourself to be okay with that experience. Recognizing, reading, and decoding those things. It all feels incredibly important to me. The second answer to that question comes from a more personal backstory. I grew up in a very small town, and so other places that are hyper-rural have a nostalgia or psychic familiarity to me. When I’m out in the desert and there aren’t any cars as far as the eye can see, that might be really unnerving to some people, but I really like it. So there’s this personal motive of mine to go out to the middle of nowhere and see what is and isn’t around you.
MW: I’m the exact same way. I want to backtrack a little bit and talk about Pathh and what you were doing before it. You were working with companies like Gap, Need Supply, and Urban Outfitters. What has it been like transitioning from these giant powerhouses into something small and personal?
JE: Pathh was founded out of my own freelance practice. There’s a reason it’s called Pathh as well. It is very much about a journey-mentality. About starting in one place and ending up somewhere else. Pathh can take many forms but I think it’s mainly about exploration. It was also an answer to the question of: How can I work with my friends? Friends that lived in Aspen, or Minneapolis, or had moved away from Philadelphia to New York. So I had this idea of running a studio even though our network of friends was distributed across various locations. And it was just nice to all get on the same Google Hangout and eat dinner together online, you know?
MW: Is there a significance to the two h’s at the end?
JE: So it comes from this naming convention. Starting out I wanted to call my projects by very literal names, and I found that it was very easy to register domain names with words that had two h’s. But more importantly I realized in the dawning of the age of Instagram, that more and more people would become their own “brand”. That was a revelation to me. People would become known similarly to how a brand is known: What do you do, what you “sell”, that kind of thing. We’re all selling something, even if it’s something as intangible as a lifestyle. Because of that revelation I decided to separate out different facets of my practice into their own buckets. I have a few other domain names like Lighht and Researchh—each have their unique explorations. Lighht is this project of installation-based lighting sculptures that I’ve made. But really these are side- and sub-projects. Pathh is the creative agency side of that philosophy and forms the umbrella over the rest.
We Have the Great Discontent, Published by Actual Source
MW: It’s really exciting to hear that you have your hand involved in so many varying projects. Is there anything you’re working on right now that you’re excited to speak towards?
JE: Well we talked earlier about being in unknown places and taking risks, and what that might imply. So I’ve been pretty excited recently to be teaching myself the technical aspects of photography. I’ve taken photos before on point-and-shoot cameras, but that’s all sort of automatic, you know? After leaving Gap, I became really interested in the technical and theoretical side of photography. Previously I had only made pictures casually, or to document my design work. And while at Gap I was seeing so many photographers that I really admired who were able to work with photography in ways that I found really amazing and unexpected. I wanted to be able to do this myself, with my own take. So I just dove into that headfirst, and it’s been really exciting to make pictures that I'm interested in much more fluidly.
MW: Are there any other ways you’re teaching yourself besides doing it? Are you reading or watching much?
JE: I’ll do a little bit of casual Youtubing, but mainly it’s me asking friends of mine for advice. Having people that know it just be able to talk me through it hands on has been incredibly helpful.
MW: Speaking towards education a little bit, I was kind of stalking your Instagram and was fascinated by your bio, which says: Creative and Educator. I’ve always been interested in what people hope for when others see their bio. Is that something you ever think about?
JE: I mean, there’s a certain element that you’re tapping into, in that most creative people use Instagram as a portfolio of sorts. Maybe more casually than what you’d put into a PDF. It can still be fun and ephemeral. But I do think a lot of people want to see both. But to answer your teaching question directly, I didn’t want to call myself a Graphic Designer anymore because I felt like that didn’t really fit even though I use graphic design as a tool. And I do a fair amount of teaching, which I find really gratifying. I taught at Pratt the last two semesters, I’ve taught at SUNY Purchase, I’ve done lectures at CalArts. I’ve been able to meet incredibly intelligent people that are trying to push the discipline of graphic design forward in the educational sphere. Any time I can maintain a toehold in the educational world I really try to. I didn’t go through a Master’s program, so I’m always slipping under the radar in different places.
MW: Is that something you could see yourself doing full-time?
JE: Probably not. I think with teaching, it’s really important to have both professional experience and academia working together. Teaching one or two classes is probably the best for me. I want to be able to go out into the world and make discoveries, and bring those thoughts back to my class and have a dialog about them. I think if I was teaching full-time, I’d begin to get stuck in the ideas that I presently have.
Office Hours Workshop with Playlab for Unfinished Festival, 2018
MW: Definitely. I want to circle back to this creative community that you were talking about earlier. Is everyone you’re working with in New York and Philadelphia, or are you guys all spread out and around and still doing the remote Google Hangouts?
JE: It’s spread around, although it’s a lot quieter now. When I was at Gap, it was sort of on hiatus since there was a lot of full-time work, so we didn’t collaborate as regularly. Now it seems to be a lot more projects that are singular, where it’s just me and one or two other people. All the people I’ve been working with all have their own jobs and careers as well. So the connections are still there, maybe just a little more loose and relaxed than before.
MW: Do you think as you get older, the emphasis on creative community becomes less important? Or is it still maintained as one of the biggest priorities?
JE: Man, what a good question. I think it’s still important to have a creative community in some form or another. I don’t think age necessarily plays into it either. At some point, you just become more discerning about who you want to invest your time into, whereas when you’re just starting out it feels more necessary to meet a lot of people quickly.
MW: We’re almost trained to meet as many people as possible and make all the connections. But it’s so important to go into any space and not only know what you’re looking for in others, but also what you’re not looking for. Relationships are about quality and not quantity.
MW: How have you been managing your workload? Do you have a system or method that you’ve found helpful in your own routines?
JE: I think the easiest way I’ve found, which is a bit of an old-school method, is to handwrite myself a to-do list every day. And sometimes that happens immediately when I wake up, other times it’s before I go to bed the night before. But it forces you to have to sit there and be present about what needs to be done, and it becomes ingrained in you. And there’s something incredibly satisfying to me about physically crossing something off a list. That reward mechanism, that shot of dopamine, really is enough for me to prioritize getting something done. But you have to be smart about it. And realistic. For example: don’t write yourself a to-do list that has tasks that are too broad, like “finish book design tomorrow”. You’re setting yourself up for failure. Break your big tasks down into approachable small tasks. One foot in front of the other. In this age of total sensory input, it’s nice to have a focus.
Image by Jack Bool for Gap
MW: Do you have the tendency to take your work too seriously? Or have you been able to work with the bigger picture in mind, where you’re going to make the work as good as it can be, but also not going to lose sleep over it?
JE: As my friend Alex says, perfection is the enemy of done. And I think sometimes that quote is also: perfection is the enemy of good. Obviously you want to make it the best work you can. To get from 0-97% might be fairly easy, but to get from 97-99% might be infinitely harder. So I always try to gauge: is it worth it? Is it worth it to refine this further, or should I keep going and move on to the next one. In a situation like Gap, working in-house at a company, there are going to be other stakeholders involved. You’re trying to walk this line between the needs of the brand and personal creative fulfillment. I guess in a Buddhist-sense you have to understand that it’s never going to be perfect anyway. So try it, and then don’t worry about it.
MW: Are there any projects that stand out in your mind that have aged really well? That you feel just as good about them now as you did when you were making them?
JE: I look at the work that we made at Urban Outfitters, and it still feels very relevant. Even some of the work I was making at Need Supply still holds up. Fashion changes quickly. I look back at some of the shoots we did, and in a world of ever-changing fashion, I think those things still look good. I’ll be able to pull them out of a box 10 years from now and think: This invite that we made out of poured cement is still cool. I've had the privilege of being able to work on a number of books over the years, and I think those will also age pretty well.
MW: Making physical things in a digital world always feels so much more rewarding. I’m in the mindset of: The world doesn’t need another shirt, but I was telling you earlier how much I loved the ‘Friendship Made Me Hardcore’ shirt that you made. Is there anything that you’ve seen recently that people have been making that got you stoked?
JE: I’m always stoked to see friends of mine doing cool stuff. The Playlab guys are making their transition out to LA and a lot of their work is really great. It’s fun and experimental, and I really love that about their studio and their practice. At the same time, and I’ll try not to sound jaded, but coming from the world of big-fashion and campaigns, you see something that you’re really into, but with the understanding that in two months it’ll be gone, and people will already be excited about something new. Maybe I’m worn down by the cycle of novelty right now.
MW: I feel like I’ve been pulling a lot of inspiration from daily objects recently, and thinking about how they can be reinvented or rebranded. Even if it’s something that I have no comprehension of how it would actually be made. I keep coming back to gigantic construction equipment. I think it would be so cool to custom color, custom brand, a crane. But realistically that’ll probably never happen. Has there been anything for you, something that’s burning, that’s like: Man I really wonder what that would look like?
JE: That’s a great idea though—that’s actually fire. To be honest, there’s two maybe slightly more attainable things I’ve been thinking about. I collect this furniture system called USM. It’s a modular shelving system. Really well-made, and infinitely customizable and reconfigurable. Because it’s all made out of pipes and joints, you can pretty much build anything you want out of it. At some point, I’d really like to build a massive sculpture from it that is also semi-functional. That’s sort of what Lighht already is—a semi-functional sculptural furniture object. I think that would be really fun, to make this furniture-Voltron out of all these different pieces.
The other thing I really want to do is an outdoor wall that is permanently installed outdoors. In that piece there are going to be a few cinder blocks that are made out of a swirled resin. So they’ll be semi-translucent. Remaking this everyday object with new material so it feels exactly the same, but entirely different at the same time, feels really exciting and fresh to me.
Images by David Brandon for Gap
MW: I’m curious as to whether you have any unpopular opinions? Things that might get your friend group arguing, you know? For me, I just don’t get the hype around In-n-Out. And I know this one might upset some of our west coast readers, but I just have no personal bias towards it. It’s so mediocre. Any Steak ‘n Shake is just better, but you didn’t hear that from me.
JE: How about Shake Shack?
MW: Shake Shack is legit. I’ll throw down for some Shake Shack.
JE: I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Steak ‘n Shake.
MW: It’s pretty good, but more importantly it’s cheap. And that’s the thing for me. It’s better than your McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but cheaper than an In-N-Out or Shake Shack.
JE: Have you ever been to Five Guys?
MW: I’ve had it, and it’s great. But I feel like I’m going to die afterwards.
JE: Yeah I gotta lay down after one of those. I mean, growing up in California, I do like In-N-Out, but I like it in the way that it’s much better comparatively than say Burger King or McDonald’s. So if it’s like In-n-Out or BK, it’s In-n-Out, all day.
JE: What does it mean to have an unpopular opinion, where you disagree with something that is commonly held in society? I think considering scale is really important here. Some unpopular opinions are small preferential opinions. For example, I don’t like red wine. I don’t think it tastes very good. But some people are like: What are you talking about? Are you crazy? It tastes a little murky to me. Sometimes red wine tastes like the bottom of a swamp. But that’s an opinion with very small ramifications. A large-scale example of your question is: I’ve worked in big corporations, and I think it’s very important to have opinions that are unpopular, because if everyone always agrees with what you’re doing, you’re probably doing it wrong. It means nothing is changing. It means no one’s perspectives are being challenged. I find many times people will fight against new ideas, and then watch as those same ideas become the new normal. If you had told auto companies 20 years ago that an electric car would be one of the most sought after vehicles on the market they all would have laughed at you, but here we are.
MW: I was thinking about that the other day, too. Whether you’re in design, or photography, or video, whatever. It’s so easy when you’re in this group environment, to just say: “This is fire”, or “Everything looks great”. It’s so easy. But it just takes one person to be like: “I don’t know about this one. I’m not really feeling it.” It sounds so simple, but it really is playing the devil’s advocate that gets people to the next level.
JE: I 100% agree with you. There’s a woman I know from my Philly days named Clare Gillen. She Skyped with my class at Pratt recently. And to your point on unpopular opinions, she said something that really stood out to me. That, no matter how powerful or famous the people in the room are, being the voice in the room that is never afraid to say: “I think I hate it. And that’s okay. We’re going to make something else and we’ll make it better.” I think that’s really important and having the students hear that, I thought, was really important.
Joel Evey for Gap Editions
MW: When I approached you about having a conversation, and presented you some of the ideas I wanted to touch on, you said: “You know, I’m not sure if I’m the best person to be speaking on this, but I’m sure we’ll land somewhere interesting”. And I think we have, for sure.
JE: And that’s why I love Clare’s process and the way she thinks. She has this “let’s see what happens” mentality. And she’s so confident in the work she makes, but also confident in saying: “Yeah, sometimes I don’t know, let’s just try it out”. And going back to the topics of chaos and the unexpected: If you don’t put yourself in those situations, you’ll never progress further than you are today. And that stands against this hyper-curated “brand first” way people seem to present these days. Process is valid, it’s not all about polished final results.
MW: Before we wrap this up, I just want to know: What’s something you wish people would be paying more attention towards?
JE: Yeah. I taught this class at Pratt called New Forms. Shout out to Sally Thurer. It was all about new ways of making, or new ways of producing. Something I’ve been interested in for a long time are these complex systems of ideas, networks of information, that are all seemingly interconnected. Thinking about cybernetics and the theories that apply to these systems, and recognizing how it all applies to culture, to governments and societies. As a designer, you’re trained to recognize patterns and digest information. Coming through the 2000’s as an adult, a time that seemed like the world was about to truly change. Technology was going to bring about utopian oneness, and we’d all be connected in a way that has never been seen before. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the exact opposite has happened. So I want people, especially creative people, to be politically active, socially active. And be vocal about it. I think we’re past the point of: I don’t want to be political online, that’s not my brand. Also, it’s not just politics. All of these systems are linked, politics is just one expression.. So when you look at society through a systemic lens, there really are no accidents. I just want people to be aware of what’s happening, both in a big picture, but also in a local picture. Like what is happening in your direct community? Do you know the first name of the guy at your local bodega? If not, what does that say about us as a society, as a network of community-builders? I want there to be togetherness. The world works so much better, and is just so much more fun when we’re all on the same page.
Image by Tim Schutsky
MW: As much as we might like to think so, none of us live in a vacuum. We are all part of some community. So, thinking about: How can I be a better architect for this community, for these people immediately around me? Knowledge and information really seem like the first answer to building those bridges, right?
JE: I think so. Get to know your neighbors. Support the things that those people care about. Me and my girlfriend, Elie, were cleaning up our block the other day, and were able to talk to people who have lived there much longer than ourselves. And they were so appreciative and grateful for such an easy task. That’s just one example, but there are so many ways to help others. Support with both your time and your money. Consider buying your groceries from the corner store instead of Whole Foods. Because that’s going to make a bigger difference in most people’s lives. You know?
MW: I can’t think of a better note to end on.
JE: That feels good to me. Thanks for talking through some of this stuff with me. It’s been a great conversation.
MW: Likewise man. Thank you. If you know of anywhere that does custom cranes, slide in my inbox.
JE: I’ll keep a lookout.